Burma taking severe hit from climate change: watchdog

from The Irrawaddy
Published on 09 Dec 2009 View Original
By Wai Moe

Burma is one of the countries worst affected by extreme weather resulting from climate change, according to a new report that assesses the impact of global warming over a period of nearly two decades.

Published by the Berlin-based climate watchdog Germanwatch on Tuesday, the report, the Global Climate Risk Index, says that Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras were the countries most affected by extreme weather events from 1990 to 2008.

The report was launched in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, where the United Nations Climate Change Conference is underway.

In addition to Burma and Bangladesh, four other Asian countries were in the 10 worst-hit list: Vietnam, India, the Philippines and China. The other region most adversely affected was Central America, where Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, along with Honduras, were among the 10 most vulnerable countries.

The group noted that poor countries had suffered the worst from the effects of climate change over the period covered by the report.

"All of the 10 most-affected countries ... were developing countries in the low-income or lower-middle income country group," Germanwatch said.

"Poorer developing countries are often hit much harder. These results underscore the particular vulnerability of poor countries to climate risks, despite the fact that the absolute monetary damages are much higher in richer countries," the group said.

The report also ranked Burma as the worst-hit country in the world in 2008 due to the impact of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Irrawaddy delta in early May, killing tens of thousands of people.

"The huge number of fatalities in Myanmar [Burma] were caused by Cyclone Nargis and revealed the low adaptive capacity of the country which, however, is also a result of the political failure to embark upon serious disaster preparedness," the report said.

The report puts the death toll from the disaster at a relatively low figure of 85,000, while estimating the cost of damages at US $4 billion. However, other organizations, including the UN, have said that the cyclone killed as many as 134,000 people and left more than 2 million homeless.

The report notes that during the 18-year period it covers, almost 600,000 people died in more than 11,000 extreme weather events, causing losses of $1.7 trillion.

As one of the world's least developed countries, Burma's carbon footprint is not as big as that of industrialized countries such as Australia, the US and China. However, widespread deforestation in the country means that it has contributed significantly to global warming.

Although forests covered 344,237 km2, or 50.9 percent, of the country in 1989, Burma's forest area is now 322,218.6 km2, or 47.62 percent of the total land area, according to official statistics-a loss of more than 3 percent over the past two decades.

According environmental researchers in the country, Burma's deforestation is a result of unsustainable logging, particularly during the early years of the current military regime's rule in the 1990s. At the time, the junta sold Burma's forests cheaply to foreign companies, particularly from neighboring countries, to shore up its foreign exchange reserves.

The regime first noticed the risk of deforestation in 1992, when then Forestry Minister Lt-Gen Chit Swe announced the Forest Law, which designated reserved forests for environmental and biodiversity conservation. At the same time, Burma signed onto the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

In the following years, the regime adopted legislation for sustainable forests such as the "Protection of Wildlife and Wild Plant and Conservation of Natural Areas Law" in 1994, the "Myanmar Forest Rules" in 1994, the "Myanmar Forest Policy" in 1995, and the "Protection of Wildlife and Wild Plant and Conservation of Natural Areas Rules" in 2002.

Burma ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2003 and authorized the National Commission for Environmental Affairs to focus on environmental issues.

But deforestation in the country is ongoing, despite forest protection laws. Burmese environmental researchers say that agricultural expansion, infrastructure projects, including dams projects, and excessive consumption of firewood are challenges for sustainable forest management in Burma.

However, researchers say that logging-both legal and illegal-for commercial purposes is the worst cause of deforestation. Companies owned by cronies of the regime, such as Tay Za's Htoo Trading, are permitted sell timber to foreign companies, while cease-fire groups are doing the same in territories under their control.

Burma's low level of economic development is also a factor in deforestation, according to some observers.

"The use of firewood by the public causes both deforestation and the release of carbon dioxide," said an environmental researcher in Rangoon. "From a street-side teashop in Rangoon to a village household, burning firewood is still necessary for cooking."

Others attributed this problem partly to a lack of knowledge of environmental issues. Awpi Kyal, a well-known cartoonist who often focuses on the environment, said: "Some information about the environment is available in Burmese journals and magazines, but they are very academic and not written for the general public."